Dumbphones: A Smart Purchase?

The term “dumbphone” refers to the relatively basic “feature phones” popular in the late 90s and early 2000s. You know, the ones that came with the game “Snake,” SMS messaging, and a whole lot of nothing else. Today, such devices are typically marketed towards the elderly, or as secondary phones for worksites or collectors. But they’re also increasingly popular amongst those looking to “unplug” from the anxiety-inducing endless feeds of smartphones.

And before you jump to conclusions, it’s not boomers or us ironic millennials, but Gen-Z who are leading the charge on this movement.

Yes, today’s biggest Nokia fan is likely to be someone too young to remember when said brand dominated the cell phone market. Subsequently, they’re also the most likely to be sick to death of our current state of digital intoxication.

I’ve been tempted more than a few times to pick up a dumbphone myself and do away with my smartphone forever. Oddly enough, the price tag has kept me at bay so far.

Dumbphones are much cheaper than smartphones (although future-proof dumbphones cost a pretty penny), but it’s still more expensive than taking possession of my wife’s old iPhone every so-many years (and in their defense, they last a good long while). Also, no Wi-Fi connectivity means paying for every call and text - hardly cost-effective for this frequent traveler.

Still, the appeal of dumbphones remains, and not just because smartphones are a potential time-suck.

Call it nostalgia, but I’m a sucker for single-function devices. Videocams, MP3 players, handheld consoles, stop-watch timers, feature phones - all are gadgets that do one thing and do one thing well. A bog-standard smartphone can perform the functions of each and, from a tech standpoint, do it objectively better. Yet the user experience always leaves something lacking. I mean, has anyone had a better gaming experience on an Android phone when compared to a PSP or Gameboy? And isn’t there something to be said for owning a piece of music, even if it’s just an MP3 file?

The form factors of old mobiles certainly have a lot more personality too. I like the classic candy bar myself, but you might prefer a flip phone or one of those bricks that looked like they came off the set of a Star Trek film. By contrast, smartphones are near-ubiquitous in look and feel.

More than anything, there’s a certain affability of older devices that smartphones lack. Read through my previous blog posts, and you may get the impression of someone who is anti-tech. But in reality, I grew up excited and enthralled by technology, especially the web, operating systems, and handhelds. I still am, sometimes.

But as Emilie M. Reed writes in their essay: The Handheld Is Dead! Long Live The Handheld, it’s hard to feel a connection with modern devices:

“Technology intimately close is scary now, because of how consolidated, commercialized, and deliberately cruel our current tech infrastructure is, because of how it’s made, for whom, and who owns the whole thing.”

To me, a smartphone feels like an obligation. For all the convenience it offers, it feels oppressive. Yet viable modern alternatives remain extremely niche and expensive (the minimalist Light Phone will put you back $299, though I appreciate its purpose). So, for now, I still carry around this device I care very little for, and that does lots of things I don’t need it to do.

A comeback for single-function devices seems unlikely, but I might yet inconvenience myself by going retro.

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Written by Mike Grindle

Published on 9th May, 2023

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Please note that quotations and images are not included in this license.

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